For those who don't know (which I didn't until Lauren from Feministe told me), the Oxford American's annual music issue is a thing of great beauty, especially for music fans and for Southerners who are decent people and want some kind of validation for our belief that there's some salvageable decency in Southern culture. As in, we hate the racism, the redneckery, the stupidity, the Bible-thumping, the assholery, but we do think that we have a few sexy accents, good food, and great tunes. The music issue validates the last belief. And if you're an Insufferable Music Snob, it's total crack---a mix of oddities, rock, country, blues, R&B, all of it cool or interesting to varying degrees. You get the writing and the free CD, and this year you get two.
I picked up my copy today at the book store, and was immediately surprised to see Neko Case's "Hold On, Hold On" on the first disc. Why, you may ask, when she is one of the most interesting and viable country musicians working today? Because, I would answer, the point of the disc is that it's Southern music, and Case is Canadian. Or is she? I did my research (looked it up on Wikipedia) and found that no, Neko Case was born in Virginia, and her family moved all over the place, and the only reason to think she's Canadian is that the New Pornographers are Canadian. At what point, I put an apology of sorts up on Twitter, apologizing to Case for doubting her right to be in the Oxford American. And a reader pointed me to this exchange on Tiny Cat Pants.
To summarize: Aunt B says that she always feels disappointed by the music issue because it's so awesome it should be a little more awesome. A feeling I think we can all relate to, such as after watching a really great Coen brothers film. Like, can I have a cigarette with that mind-blowing orgasm? But she had the same WTF reaction that many people had regarding the inclusion of "Canadian" Neko Case---hey, Vancouver's not in the South!
And I’m thinking “Neko Case?! What the fuck? When did she become Southern?” Which I believe would be the question on anyone’s mind when that song came on and yet, in the magazine, there’s a story about how her red hair is like foxes. Fine. And nice and funny about how the author gets self-conscious about writing about hair and foxes. But it didn’t tell me what I needed to know at that moment, which was the answer to “Neko Case?! What the fuck?”
She also thought the instrumentation on Ella Fitzgerald singing "Sunshine Of Your Love" was fucked up. But this is not what is amazing about this. What's amazing is the OA editor Marc Smirnoff shows up in comments and unleashes the fury. Here's part of it:
Okay, Aunt B. and Betty don’t like the Neko Case song. But, folks, hello? There are FIFTY-SIX other songs to consider. Repeat: There are FIFTY-SIX songs to consider. This seems to be the gist of your argument: “Ah, two CDs. This guys can be queer at times. Oh look. Neko Case isn’t–in my view–Southern. The end.” Wow. The laziness of that approach is overwhelming ESPECIALLY in light of the fact that you all are slamming two OA writers for not getting to the heart of THEIR subjects. So this, great exemplars, is how you get to the heart of YOUR subject? You say two CDs containing FIFTY-SEVEN songs disappoint you because you don’t like ONE of the FIFTY-SEVEN songs? This is not a joke? This is how you really think?
I think she does like the Case song. She was just saying the writer had an obligation to address the question of why Case belongs in this compilation. That's fair, especially since Case is an alt country artist, and that's a genre that's already a touchy subject for people who are fond of "real" country music. The fear and resentment that goes on when you see a certain genre started by some people picked up by others with more social esteem is not an unknown phenomenon. It's the story of rock music, specifically how white artists that wouldn't know soul if it bit them on the ass would take great rock songs laid down by black musicians and out-chart them. Now, I don't think alt country is nearly the same---it's closer to how British artists in the 60s aped American music so well they could sell it back to us---but I understand why there might be some antagonism around the issue of authenticity. Again, I don't believe in authenticity. I may have in the past, but now I've lost my enthusiasm for it. But it's a legitimate question, and it's legitimate to suggest that the writer should have addressed what he had to have known would be on the forefront of a reader's mind.
But made me really sad was reading the anti-snark vitriol:
With all due respect, I, for one, really am tired of the unthoughtful, quickie judgments one finds all too often on blogs. There is too frequently a stink of sour, condescending negativity that just lowers the conversation (and people) before even REAL ENGAGEMENT can take place. David Denby of The New Yorker has a book coming out in January on the subject of snark. I hope blogs engage it.
I fail to see how snark is necessarily part of snap judgments made without REAL ENGAGEMENT. I snark my best when I've thought about a subject at length and with a snarky, snarky depth. In all seriousness, and having thought about this for at least an hour, I'm disappointed by the anti-snark bigotry, because I would think/hope that anyone involved in putting together these wonderful OA compilations would have a deep appreciation for the snarkiness of many great Southern musicians. Sassiness is an important part of some of your finer Southern characters, especially those who bring their oodles of personality to music. Since they're fond of including people like Jeannie C. Riley in these compilations, I'd think snark was near and dear to the OA heart. In all seriousness, part of the pleasure of being a music snob is that it's a humor-laden form of snobbery, where joshing and teasing are given and taken in good humor. So to find out someone involved in music snobbery has the audacity to come out with a passive-aggressive suggestion that you "engage" with some kind of over-earnest anti-snark manifesto is disconcerting. C'mon! This compilation has Eartha Kitt singing "My Heart Belongs To My Daddy" on it! It don't get snarkier than that.
I feel for people in the dead tree sector of the publishing economy. They probably do work harder than we wee bloggers, but somehow the internet is putting them out of business and we're an easy target for anger. But I think it gives bloggers too much credit to think we're the enemy. The internet is killing dead tree journalism mostly because of Craig's List, which is depriving newspapers of classified advertising money, and I'm sure there's a ripple effect hurting magazines. Maybe the OA sells fewer issues because of the internet, though. People who read a lot online may simply hit their reading quotient for the day, and not be interested in magazines. That, plus mailing costs are crippling the magazine industry. But I don't think a single thinking soul on earth would dispute the idea that the Oxford American provides something that no one else in the world does, and while that's becoming less profitable, it's surely as valuable in the abstract sense as it's always been.
I have to ask, though, how is this not snark, and snark in the classic IMS mold?
By the way, if you don’t like THE OXFORD AMERICAN’s unconventional music coverage and interests, there are more predictable options available like PASTE and ROLLING STONE. They might be what you are looking for.
It reads like something a blogger like myself might say, though I might suggest that the person I'm addressing who needs to understand the full extend of his mediocrity also enjoys the music reviews in People.
Update: An additional criticism that points out that many kinds of music hail from the former Confederate states that somehow doesn't get covered, namely hip-hop, dance, and even heavy metal. Point taken---are you somehow less Southern because your Southern music isn't some Boomer-aged white guy's idea of Southern music? Southern hip-hop has a sound as unique as country western, so it deserves a nod, if nothing else.